Theatre Royal, Exeter
Early theatres and fires
The name "Theatre Royal" was first applied in Exeter by the mid-1830s to what had previously been the Bedford Circus Theatre, in premises dating from 1821. This theatre building was a replacement for one of 1787 which had burnt down the previous year. Under its new name, melodrama and farce were staples of the playbill.
This building was completely gutted by fire in 1885 and although it was reconstructed for other purposes the name "Theatre Royal" was transferred to new premises on the corner of Longbrook Street and New North Road.
The new theatre was built by the Exeter Theatre Company to the designs of C. J. Phipps and opened in 1886. Unfortunately it is best remembered for the disaster during a dramatisation of Romany Rye (a melodrama by Wilson Barrett) on 5 September 1887. Fire broke out backstage where gas lighting ignited some gauze. The number of exits from the gallery of the auditorium proved to be inadequate and in the resultant panic amongst the audience 186 people died, only 68 bodies being recovered. A national appeal for donations for the victims’ families raised £20,763 and the event was influential in the introduction of safety precautions for public buildings. There is a memorial to those who died in the fire in Higher Cemetery, Heavitree.
The last Theatre
During its lifetime the theatre presented melodrama, musical theatre, music hall and ballet as well as drama. Every Christmas of its 20th century existence saw a pantomime. For a period in the 1950s it showed CinemaScope films.
- Crane, Harvey (1980). Playbill. Macdonald & Evans. ISBN 0-7121-2027-0.
- Delderfield, Eric R. (1950). Cavalcade by Candlelight. Raleigh Press.
- Passmore, Dick (2002). The Story of the Theatre Royal Exeter. The Mint Press. ISBN 1-903356-21-0.